Opium of the people

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"Religion is the opium of the people" is one of the most frequently paraphrased statements of German sociologist and economic theorist Karl Marx. It was translated from the German original, "Die Religion ... ist das Opium des Volkes" and is often rendered as "religion... is the opiate of the masses."

The quotation originates from the introduction of Marx's work A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, which he started in 1843 but which was not published until after his death. The introduction to this work was published separately in 1844, in Marx's own journal Deutsch–Französische Jahrbücher, a collaboration with Arnold Ruge.

The full quote from Karl Marx translates as: "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people". Often quoted only in part, the interpretation of the metaphor in its context has received much less attention.[1]

Full quotation[edit]

The quotation, in context, reads as follows (emphasis added):

The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.[2]


Marx was making a structural-functionalist argument about religion, and particularly about organized religion.[3][4] Marx believed that religion had certain practical functions in society that were similar to the function of opium in a sick or injured person: it reduced people's immediate suffering and provided them with pleasant illusions which gave them the strength to carry on. Marx also saw religion as harmful to his revolutionary goals, as it prevents people from seeing the class structure and oppression around them, thus religion can prevent the socialist revolution.

In the 19th century Europe opium was thought of primarily as an analgesic, there was not a wide association with a vice of drug addiction.[citation needed][dubious ]


Marx wrote this passage in 1843 as part of the introduction to a book that criticized philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's 1820 book, Elements of the Philosophy of Right. The introduction was published in 1844 in a small journal. The book itself was published posthumously.

As the Deutsch–Französische Jahrbücher journal had a print run of just 1,000, it had no popular effect during the 19th century. The phrase became better known during the 1930s when Marxism was more popular.[4]

Modern comparisons[edit]

Some writers make a modern comparison of the phrase "opium of the people" to that akin to sports fandom, celebrities, the distractions of television, internet, and other entertainment, etc.[4] This can be seen as a parallel to the concept of bread and circuses.

Similar statements[edit]

The same metaphor was used by many authors during the 19th century.[5]


In 1798, Novalis wrote in "Blüthenstaub" ("Pollen"):[6]

Ihre sogenannte Religion wirkt bloß wie ein Opiat reizend, betäubend, Schmerzen aus Schwäche stillend. (Their so-called religion works simply as an opiate—stimulating; numbing; quelling pain by means of weakness.)

Heinrich Heine[edit]

In 1840, Heinrich Heine also used the same analogy, in his essay on Ludwig Börne:[7]

Welcome be a religion that pours into the bitter chalice of the suffering human species some sweet, soporific drops of spiritual opium, some drops of love, hope and faith.

Charles Kingsley[edit]

Charles Kingsley, a canon of the Church of England, wrote this four years after Marx:[8]

We have used the Bible as if it were a mere special constable's hand book, an opium dose for keeping beasts of burden patient while they were being overloaded, a mere book to keep the poor in order.[9]

Miguel de Unamuno[edit]

Miguel de Unamuno, the famed Spanish author of the Generation of '98, focused his nivola San Manuel Bueno, mártir around the theme of religion's opiatic effect on the people of rural Spain. In the book, the protagonist Don Manuel is a priest who does not believe in God, but continues preaching because he sees the positive impact he can make in the lives of his parishioners. Religion in this way also serves to cure his own deep depression, through the happiness he feels from helping the people of Valverde de Lucerna. Unamuno makes direct reference to Marx when Don Manuel explains:

Yes, I know that one of the leaders of what they call the social revolution has said that religion is the opium of the people. Opium… opium, yes! Let’s give them opium, and let them sleep and dream. And with this crazy activity of mine, I have also been using opium.[10]


Vladimir Lenin, speaking of religion in Novaya Zhizn in 1905,[11] alluded to Marx's earlier comments[12] (emphasis added):

Those who toil and live in want all their lives are taught by religion to be submissive and patient while here on earth, and to take comfort in the hope of a heavenly reward. But those who live by the labour of others are taught by religion to practise charity while on earth, thus offering them a very cheap way of justifying their entire existence as exploiters and selling them at a moderate price tickets to well-being in heaven. Religion is opium for the people. Religion is a sort of spiritual booze, in which the slaves of capital drown their human image, their demand for a life more or less worthy of man.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ McKinnon, AM. (2005). 'Reading ‘Opium of the People’: Expression, Protest and the Dialectics of Religion'. Critical Sociology, vol 31, no. 1-2, pp. 15-38. [1]
  2. ^ Marx, K. 1976. Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right. Collected Works, v. 3. New York.
  3. ^ Ellwood, Robert S.; Alles, Gregory D. (2007-01-01). The Encyclopedia of World Religions. Infobase Publishing. pp. 160–161. ISBN 9781438110387.
  4. ^ a b c "What is the opium of the people?". 1843. 2015-01-05. Retrieved 2016-12-17.
  5. ^ Welton, Michael (2015-09-11). "Opium of the People? The Religious Heritage of Karl Marx and the Frankfurt School". CounterPunch. Retrieved 2016-12-18.
  6. ^ O'Brien, William Arctander (1995). Novalis, Signs of Revolution. Duke University Press. p. 154. ISBN 978-0-8223-1519-3.
  7. ^ Heine, Heinrich Ludwig Börne - a Memorial
  8. ^ Reader in Marxist Philosophy by Howard Selsam, Harry Martel(1987)
  9. ^ F. D. Maurice (Leaders Of The Church 1800-1900)- C. F. G. Masterman (1907). pp. 65-6
  10. ^ Miguel de Unamuno, San Manuel Bueno, Martír (1930). p.14
  11. ^ Novaya Zhizn No. 28, December 3, 1905, as quoted in Marxists Internet Archive
  12. ^ "The Attitude of the Workers' Party to Religion". Lenin: Collected Works. 15. Moscow: Progress Publishers. 1973. pp. 402–13 – via Marxists Internet Archive.

Further reading[edit]

  • Abrams, M. H. 1971 [1934]. The Milk of Paradise: The Effect of Opium Visions on the Works of De Quincey, Crabbe, Francis, Thompson, and Coleridge. New York: Octagon
  • Berridge, Victoria and Edward Griffiths. 1980. Opium and the People. London: Allen Lane
  • Marx, Karl. 1844. A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, February.
  • McKinnon, Andrew. M. "Reading ‘Opium of the People’: Expression, Protest and the Dialectics of Religion" in Critical Sociology, vol. 31 no. 1/2. [2]
  • O’Toole, Roger. 1984. Religion: Classic Sociological Approaches. Toronto: McGraw Hill
  • Rojo, Sergio Vuscovic. 1988. "La religion, opium du people et protestation contre la misère réele: Les positions de Marx et de Lénine" in Social Compass, vol. 35, no. 2/3, pp. 197–230.
  • Luchte, James. (2009) Marx and the Sacred, The Journal of Church and State, 51 (3): 413-437.